Experience and art

by bjmuirhead

Some five years ago I purchased David Malouf’s On Experience (Melbourne University Press 2008). At the time I thought it was an interesting read, highly recommended, in fact, but it’s only on a recent and not yet finished re-reading that I have taken some personal understanding out of it about my own working approach to art.

What struck me this time around was what he had to say about experience and how we come by it.

Malouf (p.3) says that he wants to know where experience comes from, and he proposes two different ways of experiencing:

  1. Direct experience, or ‘the impinging on our senses of actual objects, phenomena, events.’
  2. Intuition or insight, or what he calls ‘glimpses of reality we had not known we had hit upon till it was there in our head.’

Concerning these he suggests that intuition or insight is ‘a state of passive receptivity in which intuition works in no time at all. (p.6)

Not far into the admittedly short book, Malouf (p.7-8) makes the suggestion that the wonder and excitement which children have about the world leads them to become ‘skilled eavesdroppers and voyeurs,’ but that most children stop being puzzled by the world as it becomes familiar and ordinary. But, he continues,

for writers, like children who have never quite grown up, life retains a quality of strangeness; it remains a matter of questions for which there are no satisfactory answers, of hidden motives, displaced explanations, subtle concealments and mysteries.

Malouf then goes on (p.9) to quote Henry James on Experience:

Experience is never limited and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider’s web of the finest silken threads suspended in the chamber of consciousness, and catching every airborne particle in its tissue. It is the very atmosphere of the mind.

What James is suggesting here, according to Malouf, is that experience is more than an accumulation of interesting facts, perceptions, informative occasions, and so on. Rather, experience is ‘a capacity to respond to what the world presents us with.’ (p.10) In support and clarification of this, Malouf (ibid) again quotes James as saying that

When the mind is imaginative […] it takes to itself the faintest hints of life, and converts the very pulses of the air into revelations.

From this we gain knowledge, experience, and more, we gain

the power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implications of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern[.]  (James, quoted on p.12-13)

As someone who writes poetry and stories, I happily assent to this type of view, and I have always relied on this type of imaginative connection of experience, but as a visual artist using photography more than any other tool, this line of thought also seems to shine a great deal of light on the way I use the photographic medium and, more likely than not, on the way others use the same medium.

My first thought is that the type of voyeurism Malouf mentions, the lurking around corners and behind trees in order to see (and hear) what is going on around us—the secret looking for a secret in the shape of the world—remains strong in the adult photographer and artist. And so the photographer who has more than simplistic documentation in mind approaches the world as though what they see reveals deep insight into the world; as though their photographs (or drawings, or paintings, or sculptures) can convert the simplest of sights of the world into revelation.

Hence, to the extent that a photograph succeeds in capturing our sight, the photographer has brought together the two types of experience Malouf mentions. The experience gained by insight (while looking away, as Malouf describes it on page 4) attaches to the immediate, direct experience that is looking at and photographing this object or scene.

Essentially, at its most basic, photography deals with direct experience. We look at and have direct experience of whatever it is we are pointing the lens at. Even when there is a vast amount of manipulation of a digital photograph, or the layering together of one or more photographs, what is photographed is directly seen (experienced). The manner in which what is directly experienced is photographed and then manipulated in post-production requires the application of insight and intuition drawn from our experience generally, but especially the (visual) experiences we have when we are ‘looking away’.

What I am suggesting is that the mere ‘experience’ of what we are photographing is not enough; it is the bouncing about within us of all other experience which creates the atmosphere of mind which enables the insight and vision which leads to a good, or even great, photograph. It merely is the case that the atmosphere of mind is expressed visually by a visual artist (irrespective of medium), aurally by a composer and/or musician, linguistically by a writer, and so on.

If nothing else, this is the way in which I think about my work, the way in which I believe my work comes about. Take this photograph as an example.



One person, on seeing this, declared Oh, you’re doing textures.  This comment arose from the way she had been taught to think about photography and the taking of photographs, and there’s no doubt that it is one way to think about these things. But it’s just not what the image is about, and the presence and idea of textures had nothing to do with why I took the shot, or how I treated it to achieve the final image. (Obviously, the textures in the cement, the leaf and berry, etc., are important; the photograph couldn’t exist as it does without them. I’m merely saying that the central push behind taking the photograph was not related to the textures.)

Having arrived early for an appointment, I was lurking on the the footpath waiting to go inside when I saw the dead cockroach, leaf, and so on. As I remember, I looked at these things and the way they had arranged themselves for ten or fifteen minutes before going back to my car and picking up the camera.

What struck me was the arrangement of the detritus, especially the cluster around the cockroach, and the clear arced lines leading to the next cluster. The vibrancy of the colour (which I saturated for printing) in particular, coupled with the dead cockroach on its back, spoke to me of life and death and the continuum within which we seem to experience these, and there was no choice but to take the shot and work on it. As I noted above, the physical textures contribute a great deal to this, but the real texture, for me, is the texture of experience which saw something I cannot easily express in words, and which I hope others will intuit when they look at the photo.

Another example is this shot:

The Garden of Earthly Life

The Garden of Earthly Life

In my front yard, I have a series of large granite boulders on which I frequently sit in the afternoon. Throughout most of winter I sat there in the afternoon and looked at the weed-like grass that had been killed by the frosts. Gradually, all the different elements of my experience came together and produced this, and other images. The primary difference is that I am now giving titles which hint a bit more clearly at my own experience and the meaning I (think) I intend within the work.

Needless to say, this is the way it is for me in respect of at lest 90% of my photographic work. Indeed, when I spoke of failed photographs in an earlier post, I suspect that this is what I was talking about. The images wouldn’t let me go, but they didn’t have the depth of vision and insight that working from the atmosphere of my mind can bring to a photograph. Or, to put it another way, you cannot guess the unseen from the seen in those works which have failed, primarily because my direct experience didn’t connect with enough within me, with the atmosphere of my experience. Unfortunately, this connection cannot be forced afterwards, even if the photo can be made to work a little better.